While others may not see it, those of us who live on the Great Plains — whether southern or northern — find a certain inherent beauty in the prairie. In fact, even though I have never lived anywhere but in a town or city, the five acres of land filled with prairie grasses that can never be developed are what led my wife and I to build our house on an abutting lot.
Yet what constitutes a significant portion of the plains today is to a great extent the result of a modern ecological disaster. Around here, you can still hear references to “the Dirty ’30s.” It is more commonly known throughout the country as “the Dust Bowl,” a nightmare immortalized by the classic images captured by Dorthea Lange and other government photographers or Henry Fonda and the rest of the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
As a child, I recall relatives talking about monstrous dust storms in the northern plains. Today, we have lost or are losing many of the people who survived that era. That is where Timothy Egan’s award-winning The Worst Hard Time does what history writers really should do. He examines the causes and effects of the Dust Bowl not only with the knowledge hindsight brings but also through the eyes of those who lived through it and even those who did not survive it economically or physically.
The Worst Hard Time, which won this year’s National Book Award for nonfiction, focuses on the epicenter of the Dust Bowl — a stretch of high plains ranging from the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles through the southeastern corner of Colorado and the western half of Kansas up to the Nebraska border. Egan takes us into the lives of a half a dozen or more families in places like Dalhart, Tex., and Boise City, Okla., the latter being almost smack in the center of what was known as “No Man’s Land,” the Oklahoma panhandle.
This was an area that for years prior to homesteading was known simply as the Great American Desert. In reality, it was an ecological wonder, one in which the full range of nature’s beauty and venom could be seen. Yet nature’s brutal side could be modified by the actions of man, and not always for the good. The advance of white culture in the area brought changes to land usage. Whereas the Native American inhabitants were more nomadic in nature, the first to oust them on the southern prairies were those who fed cattle. They were followed by the homesteaders, who, arriving long after most other areas had been homesteaded, were more than happy to try and carve a living out of 160 acres of prairie by busting the sod to raise crops. But a confluence of events would turn those dreams into a national nightmare.
At first, things seemed wonderful for the sodbusters. Grain brought high prices, due in part to demand generated by World War I. Because the market was so good, more and more acres were planted to grain. This effort was aided in part by the advent of the tractor, allowing more land to be planted than ever before. More people came to the area, hoping to make money quickly by growing grain on an acreage.
On Black Friday in October 1929, much of the American economy began a rapid descent into chaos. At the time, nearly one in four Americans worked a farm. The collapsing economy meant there was little or no money to buy farm products. In addition, the supply of grain far exceeded market demand. The summer of 1931 produced a record wheat crop. The market soon put grain prices at 50 percent below what it cost to grow the grain. As if the economy were not enough to strangle sodbusters, the ecological disaster struck.
The area was not called the Great American Desert without reason. Rainfall tended to be cyclic and drought was not uncommon. The 1930s, though, brought a lengthy drought unlike any these people had experienced before. But it wasn’t drought that left the land bereft. The weather conditions were simply a crowning blow to human activity.
The tractors had done what no hailstorm, no blizzard, no tornado, no drought, no epic siege of frost, no prairie fire, nothing in the natural history of the southern plains had ever done. They had removed the native prairie grass, a web of perennial species evolved over twenty thousand years or more, so completely that by the end of 1931 it was a different land — thirty-three million acres stripped bare in the southern plains.
A 1931 study by an Oklahoma college showed that of the 16 million acres under cultivation in the state, 13 million were seriously eroded. As Egan explains:
And this was before the drought had calcified most of the ground. The erosion was due to a pair of perennial weather conditions on the plains: wind and brief, powerful rain or hailstorms. But it was a third element — something new to the prairie ecosystem — that was really to blame, the college agriculture experts reported: neglect. Farmers had taken their machines to the fields and produced the biggest what crops in history, transforming the great grasslands into a vast medium for turning out a global commodity. And then they ditched it.
Put simply, the drought merely provided further insult to seriously eroded soil. The prairie grasses were nature’s refinement for the plains, literally holding the land in place while able to survive high winds and low rainfall. Without those prairie grasses, dust storms replaced thunderstorms and blizzards. Millions and millions of acres literally took to the sky. On at least two occasions, storms that started in the plains darkened skies on the east coast, including New York City and Washington, with dust to the point street lights came on.
Egan not only describes these conditions, including the worst of the dust storms in the center of the Dust Bowl on Black Sunday (April 14, 1935), but how average everyday people sought to cope and survive. He takes us inside their homes and their lives. He shows us their experiences from their own and their family’s recollections. He shows us the daily struggles and the impact of the conditions as they continued extended from year to year. And there was more to coping with the dust storms than simply its economic impact.
Many farmers and farm communities lived off what these small farms produced. Farms were not just a source of income, they were the source of food for the table. Now, homesteaders could barely keep gardens alive. They took to feeding tumbleweeds to what little stock they kept. And it was not uncommon for them to resort to eating tumbleweeds themselves.
The impact of the omnipresent dust and the seemingly endless cycle of dust storms produced effects one might not expect.
Men avoided shaking hands with each other because the static electricity was so great it could knock a person down. They also put cloth on their doorknobs and metal oven handles to inhibit the electric jolt. Car owners used chains, dragging them along the street as a ground for the electricity in the air.
This meant that in addition to trying to navigate roads drifted in with dust and coming across the blinding dust storms, vehicles could simply stop because of a discharge of static electricity, leaving an individual or family stranded in the middle of nowhere. Yet other, more dangerous, effects were far more difficult to avoid. People and animals could not avoid inhaling the often microscopic dust particles, which pervaded not only the outdoors but their homes. Prairie dust contains a significant amount of silica, which, if it accumulates, can destroy the lungs.
After prolonged exposure, [prairie dust] has the same effect on people as coal dust has on a miner. Silicosis has long been a plague of people who work underground and is the oldest occupational respiratory disease. But it takes years to build up. In the High Plains, doctors were seeing a condition similar to silicosis after just three years of storms. … By the mid-1930s, a fourth condition, dust pneumonia, was rampant. It was one of the biggest killers.
The years of drought and dust decimated families and towns physically, emotionally and economically. It caused one of the greatest internal migrations in the history of the United States. It often seemed as if the world were coming to an end. As one farmer in southern Nebraska noted in his diary at the end of July 1936: “July saw the worst month (so far) of the worst year ever.”
As government is wont to do, it created a study committee. The report of the federal Great Plains Drought Area Committee was issued in August 1938. Climate change, it said, was not the reason for the dust storms and condition of the land. Instead, it laid the blame squarely with man. The committee concluded: “The Federal homestead policy, which kept land allotments low and required that a portion of each should be plowed, is now seen to have caused immeasurable harm. The Homestead Act of 1862, limiting an individual holding to 160 acres, was on the western plains almost an obligatory act of poverty.” As Egan notes, to call the Homestead Act “almost an obligatory act of poverty” is “the most damning indictment.”
But what man destroyed, he also worked to try to recover. The Roosevelt Administration sought to fight the ecological disaster while also helping fight the economic disaster of the Depression. Various entities were created, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and Soil Conservation districts, to not only provide jobs but to try to restore the land through better land management principles, such as contour farming. Roosevelt himself had a pet idea that came to fruition: the planting of shelterbelts, groupings of trees planted to serve as windbreaks and help prevent soil erosion. At least in the Northern Plains, shelterbelts are almost ubiquitous today. These actions — together with nature’s incomparable prairie grasses — have made the plains what they are today.
There were also other far reaching policy ramifications. The collapse of the farm economy led to the first farm subsidies. The federal government even began buying back land and the subsidies included the concept of paying farmers to not put land into production. As such, the Dust Bowl years produced both natural and political effects that remain with us today. While Egan educates the reader on this, at bottom his focus is on people, what they confronted and how they attempted to survive. That is the strength of the story — and the strength of the plains.
Anybody who lived in No Man’s Land for long knew about nature’s capricious power. It was abusive, a beater, a snarling son of a bitch, and then it would forgive and give something back.
Timothy Egan, The Worst Hard Time